At our seder this year, one guest, an Israeli of Iraqi origin, told me her family has a very different way of recounting the Ten Plagues God sent to Egypt.
Instead of spilling a little wine at the mention of each plague — blood, boils, hail, frogs, the like — her father would pour some wine from a glass and say, “Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Khomeini,” as well as the names of other plagues on the Jewish people. Then he’d walk outside and shatter the empty glass against a rock — those Mizrahim don’t fool around.
“Of course, I don’t want to tell you who else we name now,” she said, her eyes challenging me to guess.
“Obama,” I guessed.
“He’s plagues five through 10.”
She imitated the motion of a spilling a bit of wine. “Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama.”
Then she threw her imaginary glass against a rock.
For her and many, if not most, Israelis, it’s very simple: Obama’s just-announced agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons threatens Israel’s very existence. The guest, like many Israelis, said there are only two ways of looking at Obama vis à vis this deal: Either he’s a sap who was out-negotiated by the Iranians or he’s an anti-Semite out to see Israel destroyed.
But there is a third possibility: Maybe Obama will go down in history as the man who finally saved Israel from the Iranian nuke.
I know this is a radical thought within some Jewish circles these days, but please bear with me.
In late 2006, I first heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compare that moment in time to 1938, declaring, “Iran is Germany.”
“When someone tells you he is going to exterminate you, believe him and stop him,” Netanyahu urged a crowd of 5,000 at the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in Los Angeles.
Yet, afterward, neither Netanyahu nor then-President George W. Bush did anything definitive to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. In fact, as Iran’s nuclear weapons development proceeded, and Bush sowed the seeds of chaos in Iraq, the options to thwart Iran became less and less ideal.
Obama, by contrast, was able to bring Iran to the negotiating table as a result of a broad and tough international sanctions regime. The framework resulting from those negotiations — announced last week and not yet definitive — are now entering their final stage.
Because Iran’s nuclear development has festered for so long, the deal as it looks now is less than ideal. Iran’s knowledge, infrastructure and expertise has grown to the point that it cannot be bombed away. As Obama acknowledged in an NPR interview April 7, when the terms of the current deal expire in 10 to 15 years, Iran will be able, if it chooses, to quickly develop a nuclear weapon.
The assumption the president is making is that, over the course of the next decade of engagement, inspections and evolution, either the U.S., Israel and/or Iran’s other opponents will invent and develop new means to thwart Iran’s ambitions, or Iran itself will make the choice to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Is that pure fantasy? From the point of view of Obama’s critics, who keep reminding us that Iran is nothing but a deceptive, monolithic evil empire eager to destroy Israel, the U.S. and, of course, itself, well, yes — any such assessment looks like fantasy.
But there also is evidence that Iranian insiders are eager to find a way to abandon the long and costly push for nuclear weapons without admitting as much to the Iranian people — who have paid an enormous price for such folly.
In other words, the Iranian regime is indeed lying — but to its own people. The mullahs want them to think this potential agreement will be a victory for Iran, when, in fact, it is the beginning of the end of a delusional and expensive attempt to become another Mideast nuclear power.
“The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a one-sided agreement,” former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr said in a revealing Huffington Post interview with Nathan Gardels. “While Iran has committed to carry out its responsibilities, the P5+1 countries and the European Union have committed only to suspend, not end, their sanctions. Even just this pledge to suspend sanctions is conditioned on Iran submitting for the next 20 years to highly intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. They will call the shots while Iran will be controlled by the threat of sanctions remaining over its head. To hide these facts, the Iranian regime’s media have manipulated the translation of the agreement to frame it as a victory.”
The regime, he said, is looking for a way out without losing face.
“The best way to have ended this crisis and move on would have been to appeal directly to Iranians with the truth about why nuclear activities began in the first place,” Bani-Sadr said.
If that’s true, then Obama’s calculated risk begins to look smarter and less risky.
“I think what we’re buying in this agreement is basically a delay in management of Iran’s nuclear threat for 10 to 15 years,” Gary Samore, one of the few true experts on Iranian nukes, said on NPR last week. “And, of course, at that point, nobody can anticipate what the situation would be, who will be in power in Iran, what U.S.-Iranian relations are like. Nobody can know that. So this agreement is basically a way to delay and manage the threat.”
That’s not to say Israel and Congress shouldn’t work to improve upon the deal. One major step they can take is to surround the deal with mutual defense pacts among the U.S., NATO, Israel and the Arab world.
If Congress really were concerned more about Iranian nukes than about depriving Obama of a diplomatic victory, and if Bibi would finally help steer the train rather than throw himself on the tracks, a June deal could happen that would keep the Iranians nuke-free for the next 10 to15 years and beyond.
If not, a plague on all our houses.